Soldiers pose in front of a large gun circa 1917 at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. Pvt. John Poor died in a shootout at the fort that year while guarding two 12-inch guns. Credit: Courtesy of Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — On Saturday morning, March 24, 1917, a telegram messenger shouted the awful news from the front gate, across the Poor family’s Illinois front yard and into their windows.

Their son was dead.

Pvt. John Poor was killed the previous day in a midnight shootout at Fort Williams, far away, on the coast of Maine.

German spies were thought to be responsible.

Though the country didn’t officially enter WWI for another 10 days, Poor’s death while guarding the seaside battery in Cape Elizabeth, likely made him the first serviceman to die in the line of duty while serving in the United States’ armed forces during the “War to End All Wars.”

Ryan Linscott (left) and Cassy Surette peek inside a crumbling battery at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Pvt. John Poor died in a shootout while guarding a battery at the fort in March 1917, making him the first American soldier to die in the line of duty during WWI. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A tiny, one paragraph, page four item in the March 28 edition of the Ellsworth American newspaper predicted it.

“Future historians may record that the first soldier killed in the performance of his duty in the war between the United States and Germany was John Poor,” the unattributed piece said. “The incident brings home to Maine the fact that the war is serious business and is getting near home.”

Congress declared war on Germany four days after the newspaper’s prophetic statement.

By then, WWI had already ravaged Europe for three years. The United States entered the fray for a variety of reasons, including Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean and its alliance overtures to Mexico.

Though German submarines never sank a ship directly off the Maine coast, tensions were high. A U.S. Navy recruitment officer told one newspaper that an “attack on the Maine coast was by no means unlikely.” Islands in Casco Bay bristled with manned gun emplacements. At the mouth of Portland Harbor, Fort Williams had two, large 12-inch guns capable of firing out to sea.

Poor was guarding those guns when he died.

A woman walks a dog across the top of an old gun emplacement at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Pvt. John Poor died in a shootout while guarding two 12-inch cannons at the fort in March 1917, making him the first American soldier to die in the line of duty during WWI. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Sometime in the still-dark, early-morning hours of Friday, March 23, two unknown men attempted to slip past Poor, who was on sentry duty. When the young soldier spotted them, the two mystery men turned around and ran.

“Poor fired once over their heads and ordered them to halt,” read an article in the Lewiston Evening Journal the next day. “One turned and fired at him with fatal effect.”

A .44 caliber bullet slammed into Poor’s thigh, bringing him down. The two men then vanished into the night.

The 22-year-old soldier from Christian County, Illinois, died a few hours later, possibly from blood loss. Transfusions wouldn’t become routine until several decades later.

It was not the first attack on the fort that week.

On the previous Wednesday, another sentry was fired on, the Evening Journal reported.

“Suspicious characters have been observed at all the fortifications in the Portland district,” it stated. “Search lights were put in use Friday evening.”

Next to that front page report, another said security had been beefed up at the new Bangor post office due to a “suspicious man” who had been spotted “skulking” in the adjacent alley.

Two weeks later, on April 14, the Bangor Daily News carried a story about a sentry attacked while guarding a railroad bridge in Portland. German spies were thought to be behind that incident, as well.

William Hay, who was watching over the Grand Trunk Railroad bridge on the waterfront, spotted a man trying to climb aboard the bridge from a motorboat. When Hay approached him, the man struck Hay in the head and fired a pistol at close range.

“The bullet passed through the sleeve of his coat and sweater and grazed his arm,” the BDN article said. “Hay’s assailant and a companion escaped in their boat, exchanging shots with him as they disappeared in the darkness.”

At the time, authorities were convinced Hay’s attackers were the same men who killed Poor. An extensive harbor hunt, including many soldiers and a Coast Guard cutter, turned up nothing.

A recent search of Maine newspaper archives found no evidence anyone was ever arrested for any of the local suspected German spy incidents.  

After Poor died, the commandant at Fort Williams sent the telegram informing the young soldier’s family in Clarksdale, Illinois. It had to be shouted from the garden gate because Poor’s family was housebound under a smallpox quarantine.

Meanwhile, the private’s mortal remains were transported to Portland’s grand Union Station train terminal on Sunday, after a memorial service at the fort. Six soldiers accompanied his flag-draped casket before it was shipped back to Illinois, where newspapers were also writing about the young man.

“The boy was known and liked throughout the county,” wrote the Daily Review in Decatur. “His death gives central Illinois first blood in the impending German hostilities.”

Park-goers explore the shore and old military ruins at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Pvt. John Poor died in a shootout while guarding a battery at the fort in March 1917, making him the first American soldier to die in the line of duty during WWI. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The story also said Poor enlisted in the U.S. Army 18 months earlier, in Springfield, Illinois, and was serving in the third company of the Army’s Coast Artillery Corps when he died.

The Matoon Gazette carried details of Poor’s funeral on March 29 in Edinburg, Illinois, where he’d lived with his grandfather, before joining the service.

“The business houses of the town closed and school was dismissed, ” wrote the Gazette.

It also noted school children marched to the cemetery with the body while the local band played.

A few days later, the Illinois legislature passed a resolution honoring Poor’s bravery and the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper in Utah declared him the first soldier to die in the new conflict with Germany.

But there were many more to come.

All told, an estimated 117,000 more United States service members would die in the war before an armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

A little over two decades after that, nearly four times that many Americans went on to perish in WWII.

Perhaps that’s why Poor’s name subsided into a historical footnote or trivia item instead of rising to a household status. Today, his Illinois grave is marked with a simple, government-issued headstone.

There is no historic marker remembering him at Fort Williams.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.